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Empowering the Newly Disabled: Inspired by Hagar’s Revelation

Empowering the Newly Disabled: Inspired by Hagar’s Revelation

This week's Torah portion “Vayera “And He (God) appeared,” relates a traumatic episode in the life of Hagar, Sarah’s servant and the woman who bore Ishmael to Sarah’s husband, Abraham. Hagar behaved haughtily to Sarah, and Ishmael’s behavior verged on violence.

Under pressure from Sarah Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away. They became lost in the wilderness and consumed all the water they had brought with them.

Hagar’s Despair–God’s Response

Hagar, now hopeless, placed Ishmael under a (shady) bush. Weeping, she waited for them both to die.

An angel appeared, urging Hagar and Ishmael to continue their journey. “And God opened her eyes, so that she saw a well of water. … She filled the jug with water, and gave the lad to drink.” (Genesis 21, 19.)

Did God create the well at that very moment to save Hagar and Ishmael? If the well was already there, why didn’t Hagar notice it immediately? What is the meaning of “And God opened her eyes?”

Reflections About Hopelessness

I found myself thinking about people who give up during adversity. If, like Hagar, they decide that it’s not even worth continuing the struggle, they may overlook available resources and possible choices.

Unfortunately, a person who becomes disabled as an adult may stop trying to better her circumstances. She used to pity the disabled, and perhaps feel uncomfortable around them. Now she’s one of them, and pities herself.

She doesn’t want to be called a special needs adult. She might cringe at the thought of being featured in a disability awareness campaign or joining in a worship inclusion Shabbat. (Could those who have acquired disabilities as adults be a silent multitude in the disability community?)

A newly disabled person just wants what she once had: a house that meets her needs, the financial means to support herself, and the freedom and opportunity to participate in her community. She longs for friends who, rather than drifting away or maintaining a distant relationship, value her companionship regardless of her physical or emotional status.

The Path to Empowerment—Gertrude’s Story

Gertrude Goldstein was a successful enthusiastic Brooklyn educator. One moment she was waiting for a bus. The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital bed. She had been struck by a car and now needed a wheelchair to get around.

After meeting and working with successful people with disabilities at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, Gertrude began taking charge of her life again. She participated in community events, visited relatives in other states, and imparted her sometimes irreverent wisdom to anyone who would listen. No wonder that one of her students, Arlo Guthrie, admired her.

Through interacting with productive people with disabilities who participate in a meaningful ongoing way in their communities, a newly disabled person will come to understand that barriers, not disability itself, stand in the way of friendship and participation. She can then join the struggle to remove these barriers.

How Can WE Help?

Do a mental search—for the people who suddenly are not attending your synagogue or the senior center, for the people home alone who rarely appear on the street…. How many “spiritual descendants” of Wandering Hagar can you identify?

God no longer sends angels to people who have given up the struggle. . It’s now up to us to sensitively introduce them to choices which they may have overlooked.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God's beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.
As a founding member and now board president of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewishexperience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, "We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation."
Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at

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